Thursday, April 25, 2013

Everything comes up roses in Bay City Players production of "Gypsy"

review by janet i. martineau/photos by kunio ouellette

Laura Peil as Rose
Three strippers bump and grind with their special added attractions. A cow dances and sings. A real-life dog  submits to handling like it was a rag doll.  And  a thrice-married mother from hell somehow manages to win a little sympathy in between her rants.

Welcome to the Bay City Players production of “Gypsy” -- the true life story about the childhood of the woman who became burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.

At nearly three hours long its a butt breaker. But director Michael Wisniewski manages to make those three hours seem less by moving things along swiftly -- thanks to a minimal set with a clever layered proscenium designed by Leeds Bird,  rich sounds from the orchestra conducted by Sandra Honsinger, eye pleasing choreography by Holly Bills and a cast with singing fireworks as well as dramatic shadings when needed.

In other words, theater teamwork that clicks in bringing an old warhorse to life despite the fact its mechanics are dated. Thankfully its music by Julie styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim still sound fresh, and its book by Arthur Laurents still hits home when it comes to stage mothers and children who were not their favorite child.

In a cast of nearly 50, somehow they all work more like an ensemble. But there are, of course, standouts.

In this one they are Laura Peil as Rose the dominating stage mother, Danielle Schoeny as her least favorite daughter Louise (who becomes Gypsy Rose Lee) and David Bowden as Herbie, the agent and lover of Rose.

Those are, of course, the three lead roles in this piece so they had better be hot. And they are. Some of their heated exchanges startle the audience in their intensity, And it only took five minutes or so for Peil, whom we have seen in other plays, to become the not-very-nice force of nature Rose and not Laura Peil. 

John Britt and Danielle Schoney
But what is the standout with these three is not so much the bombastic moments but the quiet moments, when just an expression on a face, a gesture or a movement speaks  more -- speaks to the hurt and sadness inside them, in particular Rose. This is the first time in seeing this musical many times I have felt any touch of sympathy for her even if it was fleeting.

And Schoeny in the “All I Need Is the Girl” number, when in the background she mirrors the movements of a single male dancer, well, it is pure heartache.

All three are singing giants as well, but then so is the whole darn cast. Not a sour singer in the lot in 20 songs.

One of the hits of the show is the appearance of three burlesque strippers toward the end. 

Small roles but showstoppers. In this one it was Denyse Clayton as Mazeppa with her long horn, Marla Bearinger as Tessie Tura with her,  umm,  crotch embellishment, and Jessie Wood-Miller as Electra with her lights. 

Yep, they please -- especially Clayton who can always employ a strutting, in-charge, tough shit personality when needed in a role, and it was needed here, and then deliver a little athleticism with her horn that is nearly R-rated.

It was in their “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” that the orchestra also has a chance to display some deep jazzy sounds that added to the hilarity of the three actresses.

Wood-Miller also has a second earlier role as a prim theater owner’s secretary who battles with the pushy Mama Rose entourage. It is  a nice contrast to her Electra.

Denyse Clayton as the stripper Mazeppa
The work of choreographer Bills is everywhere, in not just dance numbers but how the cast overall moves. 

One of the neatest effects she created is when the young Newboys literally slide, like a trombone, into the older Farmboys. Another great image is the human limousine driven by Cameron Pichan.

Bravo too for the dancing cow -- the front half Schoeny and the difficult back half inhabited by agile Claire Arndt.

The sharp, sharp set with its  limited set pieces and the costumes just add to the atmosphere the cast is setting.

As for the dog, its name is Chowsie and he is a chorkie, chihuahua, yorkie mix. Short scene with grumpy children’s show host Uncle Jocko (Nathan Cholger) handling  the poor critter like it was a stuffed toy. Put up with it like a true actor.

Good production. Community theater at its best.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

SVSU acting duo at the Kennedy Center's prestigious theater festival

story and photos by janet i. martineau

Hopefully Saginaw Valley State University theater majors Rusty Myers and Lexee Longwell arrived today (April 16)  in Washington, D.C.

That is if he cleared airport security with his 5-pound, oversized, complete and annotated works of Shakespeare tome that he carries everywhere with him. Might make him appear a little suspicious, along with his scraggly reddish beard and mustache.

Rusty Myers, Lexee  Longwell are in a national theater competition
But Myers, 27 -- and his “partner” Longwell, 20 -- are all business, theater business, as they travel in a rarified atmosphere.

He is one of only 16 finalists from an estimated 2,000 contestants vying for a prestigious Irene Ryan Foundation Scholarship at the national Kennedy Center/American College Theater Festival.

It is a first for the SVSU theater program, placing a Ryan finalist in the nationals. And also a bit of a shock to Myers, who for three years shorly after high school worked as a laborer for Gerace Construction in Midland before he finally settled down in college AND discovered theater.

“First of all, my high school (Breckenridge) did not do plays when I was a student so I had never acted until I came to SVSU four years ago,” he says with a grin. 

“And when I was at Gerace,  I worked with the precast crew on Dow Diamond (the home of the Loons baseball team, in Midland), so that stadium has a majority of that work done by the crew I was on.”

But back to the his trip to D.C. this week.

The Kennedy Center/American College Theater Festival consists of eight regionals leading to this week’s national, and at the regional Myers competed against  300 other Ryan hopefuls. From that, two were chosen to go to the national -- hence the number 16 competing at the end of this week.

Each Ryan has a “partner” who is required for the scenes nominees  do at the competition. And while that partner does not get an Irene Ryan scholarship  award, he or she is eligible for plenty else.

“There is a best partner award,” says Longwell. “At the regional I got as many comments from the judges as Rusty did, which is helpful as an actor. And at the national I can attend all the workshops it offers, and can audition with the theater  companies attending the festival and offering fellowships or internships.”

In fact, both she and Myers have auditions already scheduled for a scholarship with the  Shakespeare Theatre Company.

“During each day of the festival, we will spend three or four hours with casting agents, production companies,” says Myers. “And actually they are watching us the whole week, from the  minute we get off the plane to the Ryan competition on Friday. They are checking out everything about us -- how much we participate as well as the acting skills.

“The nationals is called a fast forward on theater careers because of who attends it looking for talent to recruit.”

And Longwell, a sophomore at SVSU, says she would quit college in a second if she gets an offer “because I can always go back to college and finish my degree.”

Both plan to “just have fun” at the national, which is also how they approached the regional, which took place at SVSU in January.

“We danced and laughed and had a blast all the way through,” she recalls. “I think I was the least nervous I have been for anything.”

They were, she recalls, an exception when compared to some really tense Ryan teams.

Myers had been a regional Ryan competitor for his first three years at SVSU and she last year “and nothing happened beyond the first of the three rounds then, soooooo,” says Myers, “so I was on borrowed time for anything to happen and thought it would be icing on the cake to maybe at least make it to the semi-finals (the second round) and that would be OK. And we’d just have fun with it.”
Rehearsing a scene from "Rex"

Imagine the surprise when it was announced they were in the finals. 

Says Longwell, “I was sobbing hysterically and was screaming through the hallways (at SVSU), ‘Where is my partner, where is my partner,’ because with the announcement we had to attend an immediate meeting.”

Well, he was in downtown Saginaw, delivering a festival participant to the Montague Inn...and quickly rushed back via a cell phone message.

“That was when the gravity hit me,” recalls Myers. “Holy cow I could win this thing. This is when it became real -- I might end up representing my university, winning against some Big 10 schools in five states (Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan).”

After the third round/finals came a wait to see which two teams would go to the national.

Myers and Longwell were hopeful since the three judges in the final round had nothing but praise for them, and in fact went beyond the alloted time carved out for evaluations.

And when they were announced as winners, in a ceremony at the Temple Theater, “well, I was sobbing hysterically again,” says Longwell. “Apparently that is what I do.”

As the regional competition is structured,  in the first round the team does one scene;  in the semifinals two scenes, and in the final round two scenes and a monologue by the Ryan  nominee. No more than six minutes total in that final round; less in the first two.

In the first they did “Rex” by Joe Pintaro, dealing with a roadkill dinner; in the semi-final  “Rex” again and “Gruesome Playground Injuries” by Rajiv Joseph, about a struggling couple; and in the final those two scenes plus his monologue from a Christopher Marlowe work.

Acting majors are chosen as Ryan competitors from plays their colleges stage  --  by  traveling adjudicators and a director at their college.  Myers was chosen for his role as George  in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”  and in turn he chose Longwell as his partner. And from then both choose their own competition material,  schedule their own rehearsals and mostly self-direct, says Myers.

“How it works is that the faculty does not ask you if you want their help, you ask them,” he says. “That is part of the competition -- that you have a strong work ethic but can ask their advice.  

“Lexee and I have a great stage presence I think. We are friends and get along well.”

Adds Longwell, “They pick students who are headed in the right direction for success.”

Myers received $500 in scholarship money for the regional win and would receive $2,500 if he wins at the nationals.

OK, who blew the line this time!
After graduation this spring, Myers says he is ready to start getting paid for acting, “to get some professional experience under my belt,” so will not go to graduate school at this point.

Being a country kid who likes  to hunt and fish, he is eyeing theater companies in the Pacific Northwest -- from California to Washington,  He acted in upwards of 20 plays at SVSU, from the lead in the comedy “Moon Over Buffalo” to the evil Stanley in “Streetcar Named Desire.”

“Streetcar,” he says, was the turning point for him as an actor. He knew the work as an English major,  had in mind a minor role when he auditioned,  and in no way wanted to be compared to Marlon Brando who played Stanley.

When he was cast as Stanley, in his sophomore year, “I knew I would either drop the ball or score a touchdown. It was my first role as a reprehensible villain, having always played a sidekick before. 

“What I learned was you have to find empathy for your character, no matter how bad he is, or the performance will not come off.”

In Stanley’s life, he says, only his wife Stella made sense to him, and when her sister Blanche arrives “she threatens to take that all away from him, so he has to destroy her. He would not have turned violent but his ‘property’ was threatened.”

It earned him one of his four selections as a Ryan competition nominee.

Longwell, from Howell, has been in five plays so far at SVSU and started acting at age 4 “when I was in ‘Noah’s Ark’ as a duck with one quack.” Her family is big on theater, and it was her mother who found out SVSU offered distinguished theater scholarships. So she applied and won.

In her future, Longwell  would like to  work in children’s theater and eventually teach at the college level. She was a Ryan nominee in her freshman year as Mammy in “Wiley and the Hairy Man.”

As for Myers and his route to a theater career, the short version is after high school he  tried another college and it didn’t work, so he headed for Gerace. He was “dating someone” when he decided to go back to college, she was headed to SVSU, he followed. Up to then he was into sports, hunting, fishing.

At SVSU, he says, said former girlfriend took Introduction to Acting, so as an English major he did also, the professor (Ric Roberts) saw a glimmer of something, and before he knew it he auditioned for a play and was cast in it (“Why Do Fools Fall in Love”).

“And from that my world in theater took off.”

Thursday, April 11, 2013

SVSU wins major Saginaw All Area Arts Award, and the nominees for other honors are.....

story and photographs by Janet I. Martineau

A vocal sextet, a Saginawian at work in Scotland and a long-running classical music series are among the nominees for the 24th Annual All Area Arts Award bestowed by the Saginaw Arts & Enrichment  Commission.

Announced today, the winners are kept a secret until the night of Thursday,  May 2, during a banquet  at TheDow Event Center, 303 Johnson. The reception, dinner with entertainment and awards ceremony recognizes arts organizations, businesses, volunteers and civic leaders whose efforts on behalf of the arts have enhanced the quality of life in Saginaw County and the Great Lakes Bay Region.

Ah Tempo! is the nominated vocal sextet, Stasi Schaeffer the Saginawian in Scotland, and the Rhea Miller Series at Saginaw Valley State University the long-running music series.

Sculpture show at SVSU's Marshall Fredericks
However, one winner was named in today’s announcement.

 Last year the commission originated a new award separated from the rest -- the Great Lakes Bay Regional Award,  presented annually to a person, or organization, whose vision is to encourage a thriving arts and cultural environment in the Great Lakes Bay Region.

Saginaw Valley State University, celebrating its 50th anniversary, is this year’s winner of that special award.

Among its varied artistic and cultural events are: the aforementioned Rhea Miller Concert Series, a series of 15 films shown by the  Valley Film Society, the week-long Theodore Roethke Poetry and Arts Festival, the Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum, exhibitions in the  University Art Art Gallery, Department of Music concerts by students and artists in residence, an International Cultural Night featuring talent from its foreign students, and a theater department which stages nearly 10 shows a year and operates a summer theater camp.

The All Area Arts Awards nominees, in alphabetical order, are:

Ah Tempo! performing at Saginaw on Stage
Ah Tempo! – Since 2009, this group of six male singers and an a piano accompanist has been entertaining audiences with intricate harmonies mixed with witty comments. Sponsored by the Saginaw Choral Society, they volunteer their time to rehearse and perform at area concerts, community events, special occasions and private parties.

Catholic Federal Credit Union – Catholic Federal offers volunteer workers,  outreach programs and charitable contributions to PRIDE, Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, Temple Theatre, Saginaw Art Museum and many other organizations. 

Ryan Kaltenbach – As deputy director and assistant curator of the Saginaw Art Museum, Kaltenbach’s  commitment and leadership kept the museum operating on a daily basis during a time of significant financial and operational challenges. 

Major Chords for Minors – Established two years ago by Katrina and John Vowell, Major Chords for Minors provides free music instruction to youths in grades 3-12 whose families cannot afford music lessons. Focused on at-risk youth in the city of Saginaw, the program employs four instructors in piano, guitar, drums and flute. It opened to 11 students in 2011 and now has 74 students with 71 on a waiting list. 

Rhea Miller Concert Series – Now entering its 20th season, this series yearly offers four free classical music concerts by international artists -- guitar quartets, piano duets, vocalists. It is funded by an endowment given by its namesake. 

Rusty Myers in SVSU's "Moon Over Buffalo"
Rusty Myers – Myers is the first  student in the history of Saginaw Valley State University to win a regional Irene Ryan Award for acting during the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Only 16 college students nationwide receive this honor in a competition that thousands of collegians compete for each year in eight regionals of the  festival. He heads off to the nationals later this month,.

Myers has performed in numerous productions in a variety of challenging roles during his years at SVSU, is a founding member of a theatrical mentor program for college students, has taught theatre basics to area youth as a volunteer for SVSU’s summer theatre camp and has led workshops for area high school students. 

Saginaw on Stage – This year, the Rotary Club of Saginaw sponsored its 10th annual Saginaw on Stage fund-raising concert, over the years donating nearly $140,000 from its revenues to benefit the arts and other non-profits. 

The event has grown from a few bands on the Temple Theatre stage to 30 acts on five stages at Apple Mountain. All efforts are volunteers, from the Rotary members who work out all the details to the performing groups.

Stasi Schaeffer – Schaeffer recently was the tour director for a Scottish Opera production touring 50 cities and towns in that country, and also directs new works at the A Play, A Pie and A Pint theater company in Glasgow. 

Stasi Schaeffer 
During her Saginaw years she was a founding member of two theatre organizations, CAGE and 303 Collective. She performed in or directed nearly 40 productions at Pit & Balcony Community Theatre, Bay City Players and Midland Center for the Arts as well as CAGE and 303.  And from 2003 to 2007 she was the manager of the Temple Theatre. 

Howard Sharper – A lifelong Saginaw resident, Sharper is a Michigan Association of Public Broadcasting board member, retired disc jockey and manager of programming and production for WUCX Q, 90.1, Delta College public radio. He has been a long-time advocate for local and regional musicians and mentored students looking at a career in broadcasting. 

Lois Wilkins – Wilkins started a beginning strings program for underserved urban youth in Saginaw. She has partnered with  school administrators, musical organizations and funders to enable 60 of the area’s youth to participate in Lois’s Beginning Strinz Program.

Tickets to the May 2 awards ceremony are $40. The event is open to the public and begins at 6:30pm with an hors d’ oeuvres reception and music by Major Chords for Minors and the award-winning Trojan Drum Line from Saginaw High School. After dinner, “American Idol” contestant Charles Allen will perform.

Call the Enrichment Commission at 989-759-1363, ext. 223 for more information or to purchase tickets. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

9/11 New York City fire chief recalls the good side of that awful day

story and photograph by janet i. martineau

As he spoke Tuesday at Horizons Town Talk, Dan Nigro kept dabbing at his nose with a handkerchief.

Nursing a cold, perhaps?

No, more likely nursing the effects of 9/11 in 2001.

He was at Ground Zero of the World Trade Center in New York City when the second plane hit and later the two tallest towers and another smaller one in the complex collapsed -- as the chief of operations  for the New York City Fire Department; second in command to the chief of the department.

Dan Nigro
His week-old Crown Victoria was flattened that day. 343 of his fire department colleagues  died -- including the chief of the department, whom Nigro replaced for a year. And nearly 2,000 people going about their business in the World Trade Center  towers perished, “hundreds without a trace.”

“Many of the people who survived the collapse of the towers have since died -- the driver of my car that day, of cancer, as well as people who cleaned it up -- due likely to the contamination of the site.  Think of what is in building materials and it was all pulverized into dust.

“I also think my sinus issues you are seeing today was part of that too.”

There is a slight sadness to the tall and lanky Nigro as he speaks. Many of the people who survived that day still have what is called survivors guilt. He recalled that as he  began a walk around to see all sides of one of the towers, he stopped briefly to console a man he knew who was looking for his wife -- his wife who had gone back to work in the towers that week after the birth of their first baby.

“That brief pause saved my life because the tower began to collapse -- an 11-second roar. If I had not stopped to talk, I would not be here. Those  ‘what ifs” get to you.”

But Nigro says he still speaks today about his worst  day of a 33-year New York Fire Department career “because in the midst of all that, there were positive results from the actions by good people.”

Nigro, 64, joined the department in 1969 as a firefighter and quickly rose up its ranks. His father was a captain in the NYFD;  four nephews and two son-in-laws serve it. Nigro says in his early years arson ran rampant so he was well trained in fighting fires.

“But on 9/11, two planes fully loaded with fuel crashed into two buildings, with the flames leaping 100 feet. And then the towers collapsed into murderous rubble. I knew when I first arrived on the scene we were in trouble. We had never fought a fire that high in a high rise  ... and then soon after the second plane hit.”

A fire chief’s job is to save lives and bring every firefighter home, he said. “so in a sense I commanded the biggest failure in firefighting history....but I could not have changed the outcome of that day.”

“I had many sad days over my 33 years. On Father’s Day of 2001 we lost three firefighters in an explosion and collapse -- one I had known since childhood. Such things were wearing me down. I would often think I had seen enough pain and sadness. But I kept bouncing back.”

And he did indeed bounce back from 9/11 too, he says -- knowing countless  firefighters ran in and up the stairs without question, “and kept entering  realizing the danger and that they probably would not make it out; that they had, indeed, cleared a pathway on the stairs of the South tower so workers above the airplane hit zone could escape, but then the collapse happened; that they did successfully  evacuate a smaller building on the grounds when they realized it would likely fall victim.

“It was an honor and a privilege to work with those heroes that day.”

The first plane hit during a shift exchange at the 200 fire houses in the city, he said. “And that is why we lost so many firefighters -- those going off their shift responded too.”

In the days that followed, Nigro visited 70 units, attended 100 funerals and memorial services, wrote 400 letters to wives and parents.

In 2012, he recalled, the Costa Concordia cruise ship tipped over in Italy and the ship’s captain and many of its crew abandoned the ship and their passengers to get to their own safety. Italy is still embarrassed by their actions, he said.

“But on 9/11, the Fire Department of New York served our nation well. They all did the right thing. And I also with  the help of others did the right thing that day and after.  I believe that helped us as a nation to deal with that tragedy.

“That is what I recall -- the good deeds and sacrifices that day and in the days after. In all our lives days like this, ones that change our lives, happen. And you are able to close every day after with the knowledge you acted property on that day.”